Jul 24, 2014

Schoolhouse Review Crew: Flourish

Most of the reviews I do are curriculum or extras for the children to work on. That's because most of my focus is on them, schooling them, raising them, hauling them out of trouble. Sometimes I forget that I have to cultivate myself a little bit, too. So I was happy to be given the chance to review a book just for homeschool moms. Flourish: Balance for Homeschool Moms was written by Mary Jo Tate and published by Apologia Educational Ministries. Flourish is a paperback book and costs $15.


Mary Jo Tate is a mom, a homeschooler, an author, editor, teacher and blogger. How does she find the time to "do it all"? Well, she wrote a book to explain that and to tell you how to, as well. Flourish is 16 chapters full of tips, suggestions, ideas, and personal stories on how to take the circumstances in your life and balance them so that you and your family don't just survive, but flourish. She tells you how to take "doing it all" to a whole new level.

Of course, her first point is that she doesn't do it all and nobody can. But it is possible to prioritize your life in order to keep your life balanced. It is possible to keep sane and get the important things accomplished at the same time! There is no way for me to share adequately the almost 300 pages of wisdom from this book except to just tell you to read it yourself! Flourish is one of those crazy books that you don't think you need until you read it.

At the end of each chapter, there is a Take Action section that helps you apply the information from that chapter. These are sometimes questions to consider that vary from the simple "Have you already established the habit of setting goals?" to the more complex "How will you teach your children to be responsible?" Sometimes they are a literal call to action such as "Make hospitality a priority. Invite someone to join your family for a meal this week." or "Each night, make a list of Daily Tasks for the following day." When you purchase the book, you also receive a free download of "extras" that include worksheets to help you with some of these Take Action challenges.

As I read through the book, I took some notes and used a highlighter as certain things stuck out to me. There is so much information in this book that the take-away will be different for everyone and I think if I were to re-read it again in a few years different parts would impact me.

Here's a few of the things that resonated with me as I read...

Juggling all the balls that a mom, housewife, teacher, and ect. has to juggle takes some forethought and planning. Several suggestions that she made were ones I could implement right away. For example, she writes about taking advantage of small blocks of time to knock out simple chores. When my husband has a moment in his day, he likes to call me and chat. It's a great way for us to keep connected, but instead of just sitting around and talking, I could be doubling my productivity by doing mindless chores such as folding clothes, wiping counters, picking up a bedroom. All things I could do one handed while still having a conversation.

Another idea I'm implementing is to keep a time log (there's a form to help you with this) of my day in half hour increments. This is helping me to see where I'm spending time unwisely, where some of those small blocks of time actually are, and places in my day where I could be more efficient in getting the important things accomplished.

The chapter called Oxygen Masks and Monkey Bread Days was also helpful to me. I'm an introvert so I'm pretty good at carving out a space every day where I can just breathe (well, some days I do this, anyway) but after reading this chapter I realized that I was not truly taking care of myself, because I often neglect to take the time for my physical health, hobbies, and relationships.

And finally, the chapter on adjusting attitude convicted me. Mary Jo talks about a "no whining" rule and how and why to avoid guilt, fear, perfectionism, whining, resentment, self-righteousness and negativity. Yep, in one little chapter, she pretty much hit all of my weak points. :)

Flourish is encouraging and uplifting. Without being preachy or condemning, Mary Jo confronts the difficulties assailing moms everywhere (homeschooling mamas or not) and addresses them with wisdom and wit. Using personal stories from her own life, she offers practical suggestions and always always points us back toward God as our help and guide.



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Life with Boys and Caterpillars


As I am washing the dishes, I overhear this conversation,

Nate: Daniel, one of your caterpillars is dead.

Daniel: Dead? How do you know?

Nate: Well, it fell off the table and it's unresponsive.

Daniel: Unresponsive? You do know that caterpillars don't talk?

Nate: Yeah. But when I poked him he didn't move. Oh, yeah, and you only have two caterpillars left.

Daniel: Only two? That means three are gone...

Nate: Yep.

Me: (suddenly realizing what they are talking about) Wait. What? You have caterpillars IN THE HOUSE?!?!

Nate: Yep. And three escaped. Watch out for your celery.

Oh, yay.

Jul 21, 2014

The Daily Routine



I know a lot of people are allergic to schedules but I'm the kind of person that would never accomplish anything without a list. On the other hand, I have a husband, four kids, a Dreaded Jungle Basset, a Mouthy Parakeet and a Seafaring Hedgehog all up in my business every day so I have to keep flexible as well. I balance these two needs with a plan and a routine.

My routine often changes but I always start a new school year with a shiny, new plan all mapped out and ready to go. I write down everything that needs to get done, sorting into daily, weekly, and semi-weekly categories. Next I schedule my day into hourly blocks so I know if I have enough time to get all these things done. I shuffle, re-organize, and even delete items. Finally, when I'm satisfied that we will not be overscheduled, I print off my schedule and then go over it, step by step with the kids. I find that it helps everybody tremendously if they know all expectations ahead of time. Also, on more than one occasion they have pointed out a snarl or reminded me of something I had overlooked!


We aren't morning people around here, so our goal is to start our day between 8:00 and 8:30. I usually let them hang out on the couch and wake up a bit before I start breakfast. But if they sleep in too long, then they miss out on this ritual.

Breakfast is also our Creche Conference time. I describe that in detail here. Right after Creche Conference we do Flip Flop Spanish. I put it here because it's a group subject and we are still together. It is frustrating for everyone to have to wait on that "slowpoke" kid who, like a watched pot, just goes ever more slowly the longer you look at him.

After Spanish is chore time. Each kid has responsibility for different chores: pet care, wiping the table, spritzing up the bathroom, etc. I keep a list on the side of the fridge and it is their job to read the list, complete the chore, and mark that it is done. I have chores of my own to do at this time, and my last one is to check up on their list. I learned the hard way that I must inspect everything I expect. ;)


As soon as each child is done with his/her chores and they have been "rubber stamped" by me, they bring their baskets of school stuff to the table and start on their "independent work". This means everything that they can do without direct supervision from me and/or without participation from a sibling. They all know how to watch a video, work a math sheet, draw a picture, and run the programs on the computer. If they need my help or to have their work checked, I am right there. Over the years, I add more and more of their work to this block of time. At this point, most of their work is here. It's a juggling act for all of us as I listen to one child read, give another child spelling words, check a math paper, watch as another child completes their copywork and listen to one of the big kids narrate a reading. But we do pretty well most days.

When a child finishes all their work in this block, they are free to do whatever their heart desires as long as they do it outside or in their bedroom. I do not allow them to hang out with the rest of us and distract the kids that are still working. But this free time is an incentive to not dawdle over their work.


Up to this point, we have just been doing the next thing. But lunch is a hard and fast (most of the time) stop at 1:00. I do this in order to keep us moving forward. We all stop and eat lunch. Whatever hasn't been done will have to be squeezed into their free time in the afternoon.

When we start back to school next month, I will be adding a "literature hour", except it will only last thirty minutes. Basically, Kaytie and Nate have to read a book off their list for thirty minutes and Daniel and Abbie have to read to themselves any book they like (but I did pull off our shelves a basketful of books right at their reading speed for them to pick from). This will encourage the big kids to step it up a level in their reading and give up some of the easier reads that they seem stuck on. Not bad books, but just books that are too easy for them to be reading and re-reading. And it will encourage the little kids to take that plunge into real reading for pleasure. Neither of them think they can read unless they are reading out loud to me. It's become a crutch that I want them to give up. They will still read out loud to me in their "independent block" in the morning.


After that, since that is basically the end of our academics for the day, I have set aside a chunk of time to finish up anything that wasn't completed in the morning. If they finished all their work in the morning, then this is free time. :)

After this is outside play, chores, and snack. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we will have an extra read aloud time. On Wednesdays we will work on handicrafts and listen to our current composer. On Thursdays, we will go off and do some Nature Study.


Late in the afternoon, after they have had time to burn energy and blow the cobwebs from their brains, I have scheduled a time that I'm calling by the vague name of "projects". This will be a time where they pick something productive to do or to learn. I'll be offering the big kids a photography class during this time. Or they can draw, paint, conduct a science experiment, practice the piano, build with Lego, whatever, as long as they are using their brains and/or their hands. My kids are great at only choosing to do projects that can be completed in one sitting. This block of time is intended to stretch them out of that habit. I don't know if it will be successful or not.


After that is supper and evening time with Dad, then showers and bed. OR, one of our evening activities. We tend to be quite busy in the fall and a few weeks in the spring and then we take the rest of the year off (except for Scouts which lasts all school year).

Friday is our out of the house day. We have co-op in the morning and errands in the afternoon.

Jul 16, 2014

A Gathering of Young Penguins

We call our Morning Meeting/Circle Time by the unique title of Creche Conference. This is because a group of baby penguins is a creche. And the kids liked how important "conference" sounded.


We have our Creche Conference during breakfast every morning. It gives us a little extra time in our day, and the kids find it easier to pay attention when their hands are busy and their mouths are full. I keep a list in my binder of our schedule. The one in the picture above was last year's, this year's is at the bottom of the post. I also keep our memory work and pieces of artwork in my binder so it's handy. The hymn book, Kindle, and other books I need (some of them will rotate in and out) I keep in a small crate that one of the kids will haul to the table every morning. I can't show you pictures of any of this because I don't have it actually printed and/or organized for next year yet!

We always start with me reading a short passage from whichever book of the Bible we are currently working through. I don't schedule this at all. We choose a book (it will be Esther in the fall term) and I just read little bits and have the kids narrate. My Bible separates passages with headings, so it's easy for me just to read from one heading to the next.

Then I read a poem from our current poet. This fall it will be selections from William Blake. I get these straight from Ambleside Online.

Next, depending on the day, I read a tiny bit from a biography about that term's artist (Monday), poet (Tuesday), composer (Wednesday). On Thursday I read part of The Book of Virtues. (this is new because I just remembered a few weeks ago that I own this book... so I thought we might as well use it!)

On Mondays, the kids look at a piece of artwork from the term's artist. This fall it will be Manet, which, again, I get from Ambleside Online. They narrate what they see. Then they work on memorizing the current Bible verse. We are ambitiously attempting to commit Psalm 119 to memory.

On Tuesdays, our memory work is a poem. We have three lined up for the fall: Ozymandias, The Destruction of Sennacherib, and The Charge of the Light Brigade. We will attempt them in that order and when those are all committed to memory we will choose some more.


On Wednesdays, we work on The Mother's Catechism. I am pleased at how much they enjoy this and how easily they memorize it.

On Thursdays, the kids are memorizing the U.S. Presidents in order. This is a rollover from last year, but we are all determined to finish!

Next, we sing two hymns. One changes weekly and we are just singing our way through the hymnal, choosing every song that I know and skipping the ones I don't. The other hymn we will sing every school day for four weeks, in the hopes that we will have fully memorized them. I chose a long list that I knew and loved and then had the kids vote which ones they wanted to learn. I plugged in the unanimous ones first, then the ones with three votes, and so forth until I had enough for the whole year.

We will finish up our Conference each morning with a Wrap-up competition and History read-alouds. I leave that for last so that we can move to the couch if desired and so that we can narrate in whatever form we like without worrying about a time limit.


Jul 10, 2014

Schoolhouse Review Crew: WriteShop



Learning how to write doesn't have to be dull drudgery. It doesn't have to a stressful session of a child trying to decide what to write and then struggling with the mechanics of actually writing it down. It can be enjoyable for both teacher and student, especially when you use WriteShop. I have used this product before with Kaytie and Nate, so I was excited to review Level A with Abbie.





We received the digital products:  Primary Teacher's Guide, Book A $24.50 and  Primary Activity Pack, Book A, $4.50 both PDFs. This level is recommended for children in Kindergarten or 1st grade. I chose this level because Abbie just finished First Grade and is brand new to the concept of assignments or requirements in creative writing. She was almost too old for it, but we were able to make it work with a few tweaks here and there.

The Teacher's Guide starts with explaining the purpose of WriteShop, which is to give young writers confidence through success as they learn. Therefore, it is okay to be your child's scribe as she creates. The lessons also go slowly with lots of support and ideas so your child is not just expected to be creative on their own. This is great for those kids who can never think of what to write about.


Next is a selection of schedules that you choose based on your child's age and ability. Since I was using this with a rising second grader, which is the highest age/ ability level recommended for Book A, I chose the third option: the one-week lesson plan, which put us doing a lesson a week and finishing the book in ten weeks. There is also a schedule for combining two children working in different books.




Then there is a section on materials and how to set up a writing center and fill it full of fun (but optional) supplies to encourage creativity in your child's writing. Since Abbie is my youngest and my third child who loves creating, I already had a set up ready for her. We keep markers, pencils, crayons, scissors, glue, etc. always available in this set of drawers. Also inside the drawers are all the little goodies of scraps, foam, googly eyes, etc. that she might want to use to illustrate her stories. There is paper in that black tray on top of the cabinet and we also have a  file-drawer of various papers that the kids are allowed to use when they want.


Next is an overview of the lessons and an explanation of how they work and what you are hoping to gain as you teach.

Finally, there are the lessons. They are divided into Activity Sets, eight for each lesson. These are scripted writing activities that you do with your child. They are set up into short steps so your young child does not have to work too hard but is still contributing to the process. It's a growth that is gained through gentle stretching, not rigorous work. At the beginning of each lesson, the learning objectives are clearly explained. All materials needed are listed, grouped by the activity you will need them for. Any advance preparation needed is highlighted in a blue color to catch your attention. The instructions are clear and easy to follow.


To show you how we used WriteShop, I'll just walk you through a lesson. Since Abbie is at the top of the age limit, we tweaked the lesson plans because she did not need all of the repetition that a younger child would.

So, for the Lesson Four, we sat down together with pen and paper and began. I asked her to help me think of words that tell us about friends. So we came up with a short list and then she chose the one she liked the best. I wrote most of the sentence and she wrote the word she chose. So the first sentence in our story was: A friend is funny. Then I asked her, "What do friends like to do together?" She replied, "Friends like to play tag." So that was our next sentence. Friends like to play tag. My next question was, "Why are friends special?" This one stumped her for awhile, but she eventually decided that: friends are special because God made them. By this time, she had the idea so she added the last few sentences with little prompting. And that was it for the day.

In the guide, you would do this process several times for several activities and learn about finding a title for story, using a paper "cookie" as a prop. The child would "publish" their story for this lesson by writing it on paper cookies and tucking them into a real or pretend cookie jar. You would finish up by baking real cookies with your child, helping them create a card for a friend, and singing a song complete with motions.


But since Abbie did not need all of that reinforcement, and quickly came up with her own title when I asked her for one, we continued the lesson a little differently. Our next session, I had two circles from brown construction paper and four circles of white paper ready for her. She used her markers to draw pictures, but decided that she didn't want to do any of the writing. We looked over what we had written the day before, and edited it a bit. Then I wrote the sentences and she did the illustrating. Finally, we stapled the pages together and she had a cute little book that she had written all by herself!


There is plenty of variety in each lesson: reading that correlates with the theme, ways to choose a title, suggestions on introducing the dictionary and thesaurus, how to make word banks, tips on teaching your child to edit, songs to sing, crafts to make, using story webs, brainstorming, and of course, the activity sheets that come with the program. The activity sheets are cute and fun, a great little addition to the course. We did not use all of these sheets, but Abbie enjoyed many of them, like the one below. We would definitely have used them all if she had taken this course in Kindergarten!


I like WriteShop because it is a gentle way to introduce a child to creative writing. Abbie felt successful after every lesson. She proudly showed off her work to Daddy. It's so much fun, she wasn't really aware that she was learning!

I like that it is scripted (even though I don't always use the scripts) because it shows me what the author of the product is trying to accomplish in the lesson. I like that everything is so clearly laid out that the majority of the time I can just open and go. If there is any prep it's easy to find and fairly simple to do.

You can check out a sample lesson, look at samples of the Activity Pack, check out the Scope and Sequence, see which level is right for your child, or click on the banner below to see what other Crew members had to say.



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Jul 9, 2014

Schoolhouse Review Crew: Moving Beyond the Page


We love books. And we love hands on projects. If you put those two together, you have a winner in my house! So we were thrilled to be asked to review two units from Moving Beyond the Page. We chose Language Arts Package - Holes  and Science Package - Rocks and Minerals both of which are intended for children ages 8 to 10.



For Holes, we received the Online version, which means we received a physical book in the mail and access to the guide online. The book is ours to keep, but the online access expires three months after you activate it. In other words, if I purchase an online guide in March, but don't activate it until September, it will not expire until December.


The guide is divided into three sections.

Getting Ready, which has:

  • a how to use page, complete with video. This explains in great detail the overall structure of the curriculum as well as the format of the lessons and finishes up with a description of a typical day.
  • a list of needed materials, divided by lesson. These materials were all either items that we already had (glue, flour, a mixing bowl, etc.) or were easily obtained (jarred peaches). 
  • a summary of skills your child will learn in this course. This is an extensive list and is sorted into Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies categories. 
  • a review sheet of the facts and definitions the child is expected to master in the course.
  • a quick PDF download of all the needed student pages (you print these)
  • a quick PDF download of the reading assignments and questions


The Lessons:

There is one lesson for each chapter of the book, plus a final project for a total of fourteen lessons. Each lesson has three parts.
the Introduction, which contains:
all the facts and definitions and the skills taught in that particular lesson, 
the materials needed, 
and questions and information to get your child engaged in the lesson

Activities which tells you how and when to present the projects and worksheets

the Conclusion, which is usually just a paragraph explaining how to wrap up the lesson. 


Spelling and Vocabulary:

a schedule, a list and worksheets for integrating spelling into the program
a list of the unit's vocabulary words and their definitions



Although Holes and Rocks and Minerals  are intended to be worked on concurrently, I just had Kaytie (11) and Nate (10) work on Holes while everyone did Rocks and Minerals. I started out by asking them to read the first four chapters of the book, Holes, as per the reading assignment section. However, by the time I finally wrested the book from their hands, they had both pretty much finished reading the entire thing. So we tossed the schedule and just worked through the activities in the lessons. There are three or four or sometimes more activities for each lesson, so we were able to pick and choose the ones we liked the best. Sometimes we did all of them, sometimes we just picked a couple to try. I like curriculum that offers more than we need, even though I am always fighting the temptation to do it all!


Not only are there a lot of activities, but there is a wide variety to choose from. Kaytie and Nate did a mapping exercise, made spiced peaches, researched and reported on the desert biome, came up with an invention, filled out a worksheet on irony, corrected fragmented and run-on sentences, played an adverb game, cut and sorted events in the story, and created their own correctional camp. And we only did a small portion of the available activities.






For Rocks and Minerals we received a physical guide, a physical book called Geology Rocks: 50 Hands-On Activities To Explore the Earth and two kits, Minerals, Crystals, and Fossils Science Kit and Dig A Dino T-Rex.


The guide is a sturdy, soft cover, spiral bound book of about 77 pages. It starts with a short explanation of how the program works (much the same as the online program's explanation) describes what the student will be doing/learning and then gives you a reading list and a materials list divided by lesson. Next is a vocabulary list with definitions. Then a review sheet divided by lesson and finally the lessons themselves. The lessons are set up basically the same as the online guide, with Getting Started, Activities, and Wrapping Up sections. The Activity Sheets are right in the book, and are NOT reproducible. If you want to use this product with more than one child, you have to share or buy a guide for each student. Since my kids are not strong writers anyway, we got around this by just having Mommy do all the writing for everyone.


Rocks and Minerals pulled together readings and activities from Geology Rocks and the two kits. So as we worked our way through the guide, we learned about the Periodic Table of the Elements, birthstones, the minerals in our food, the different types of rocks and how they are formed, about crystals and geodes, volcanoes and earthquakes, fossils and paleontologists. Again, there were so many activities offered in each lesson that we were able to pick and choose what we wanted to do. There were some super fun ones that I deliberately left out because they will work so well with our history studies next fall. I love products that are so full that you get plenty of use out of them! It makes me feel as though I definitely am getting my money's worth.


Some of the activities we did were: testing rocks, excavating a dinosaur, looking for various minerals in the foods we eat and products we use (this led to a very productive discussion on sodium and how easy it is to get too much since it is simply everywhere), mining cookies, making an edible model of the earth (we tweaked this, because we didn't have the exact supplies necessary but the kids were too excited to wait), looking up Greek and Roman myths about earthquakes and volcanoes, collecting and examining rocks, and much more.


I liked the fact that the guides are pretty much open and go. The supplies are simple enough that I could open the book, send the kids to gather the supply list and within moments we were ready to start. I did have to print sheets from the online guide, and I did have to purchase few things but that was easy enough to do all at once and then it was done.

As you can tell, there is a lot to a Moving Beyond the Page unit. We thoroughly enjoyed using both of these and heartily wish we could afford to purchase more. From the moment I unpacked the box until we completed the guides, the kids were excited, interested and completely engaged in the learning. This product gets a definite recommendation from us, but here are the kids' opinions in their words:

Kaytie: I liked the book Holes a lot. Partially because it had two different storylines. It was easy to read. I liked the activities because they helped me understand the book a little bit better. The make your own invention one was my favorite!
I liked Rocks and Minerals because of the experiments! They used easy to understand terminology. My favorite experiment was the cookie one, even though it was hard and I broke three toothpicks trying to do it. 


Nate: I liked Holes because it had several plots. I liked the activities that helped me explore the book to further depths. I liked sorting the parts of the story and talking about the problem, climax and solution of the story. 
Rocks and Minerals was interesting. I got to do some pretty exciting stuff. I got to excavate a dinosaur and the mineral tests were fun. Mining for cookies was silly (in a good way, of course). There was nothing I didn't like about these guides!


Daniel: I liked the experiments. My favorite experiment was when we mined through a cookie with toothpicks. I learned that rocks come from the earth and are all different.


Abbie: I liked learning about minerals and rocks. There's some crazy stuff in my cereal! I liked checking to see if the rocks were magnetic. 


You can buy Moving Beyond the Page by unit, or a whole year's worth at a time. It is sorted by age level as well as by subject. Although, as we have learned, the age levels are a little fluid since my eleven-year-old and seven-year-old both did great with the 8 to 10 level.

Holes costs $19.92 for the online version.
Rocks and Minerals costs $64.89 for the physical version.

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